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A Brief History of the Bikini
With summer on the horizon, many people are thinking about swimwear. One of the most popular styles for women is the 2-piece bikini. With many teeny-tiny versions available, its hard to believe that only a little more than 60 years have passed since the bikini first made its splash.
In the 1920s, and 30s, swimsuits were modest affairs. Nothing less than complete coverage of the torso and buttocks was required. A bit further back in history, women actually swam in dresses. There was absolutely no showing of cleavage, or legs above the knee.... heavens!
The first 2-piece suits actually came about as a result of war-time rationing during WWII in 1943. To save fabric, women's swimsuits did away with skirts, and midriffs were bared for the first time. But these early versions were still very modest. Nonetheless, these women were saluted by many for doing their patriotic duty!
Enter French engineer Louis Reard and designer Jacques Helm in 1946. Reard is primarily given credit for designing a 2-piece swimsuit that went much further than anything previously created. The original suit created by Reard was a mere 30 inches of fabric, that generally resembled a bra and underwear, tied together with strings. He wanted a huge unveiling in Paris, but he also needed a catchy name for the phenomenon that was about to be unleashed.
Who knew that the U.S. Navy was about to provide exactly what he was looking for (so to speak) on July 1, 1946, when it detonated an atomic bomb near several islands in the Marshall Islands, known as "Bikini Atoll." The explosion itself was the first of several tests known as Operation Crossroads, conducted to study the effects of nuclear explosions on equipment and ships (the first test was an aerial detonation, and the second test, conducted on July 25, 1946 was an underwater explosion). Although all residents of Bikini Atoll were evacuated for the tests, there remain concerns to the present day of the effects of the nuclear bombs in the Marshall Islands.
Geard seized upon the publicity of the Bikini Atoll bombings and opened up his poolside show in Paris four days later on July 5, 1946. He claims that the suit was named after the islands, but most agree that he sought to ride the wave of press at the time concerning the U.S. Navy's operations, instead.
The original bikini was so controversial that Geard could not convince regular models to wear it on the runway. A nude dancer strolled down the catwalk to show it off, which led to 50,000 letters of fan mail. It was advertised as "smaller than the world's smallest bathing suit." Although previous 2-piece swimsuits had been worn by women, this style was particularly risque, given its strong resemblance to lingerie and the fact that the navel would be showing. So, yes, in many respects the launching of the bikini was like dropping a bomb on the fashion world!
The world was stunned and outraged. Catholic countries like Spain, Portugal and Italy outlawed the swimsuit. Hollywood was pressured to keep it off the screen. One person said that "a bikini reveals everything about a woman except her mother's maiden name." As late as 1957, popular women's magazines were basically calling anyone who would dare wear the thing a tramp.
Just three years later, however, the popular song "Itsy-Bitsy-Teeny-Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini" became a hit in 1960. Before long, teens were beach blanket boogieing in cute little 2-pieces. Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon starred in "Beach Party" in 1963, enticing women to purchase similar sexy swimsuits.
Fast Facts About the Bikini
- 1946: The bikini is introduced by Louis Reard in Paris, France
- 1951: Contestants in the Miss World contest are prohibited from wearing bikinis; more modest one-piece suits are allowed
- 1950s: Bridgette Bardot's wearing of the swimsuit helped its "exposure" in Europe, and later in 1957 in the United States
- 1960: "Itsy-Bitsy-Teeny-Weeny-Yellow-Polka-Dot Bikini" song is sung by Brian Hyland. Teenage girls go on shopping sprees to buy the infamous 2-piece
- 1962: Ursula Andress emerges from the sea in the James Bond movie, "Dr. No," in a belted white bikini. Whoa. 40 years later, Halle Berry reprises the scene in a gorgeous orange bikini as Bond's nemesis in "Die Another Day."
- 1966: Raquel Welch models a cave-man bikini in "One Million Years B.C." Who cares if there was a worthy plot?
- 1970s: Introducing the "Tanga Suit," aka thong bikini, thanks to St. Tropez and Rio
- 1983: Another movie milestone. Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia enthralls even Jabba the Hut in her bikini-styled costume
- 1993: Gabrielle Reece shows a strong, sporty style to the infamous suit by playing some incredible beach volleyball
- 1995: The microkini is named for the extremely tiny, barely covering your private parts swimsuits that are said to "fill a niche between nudism and conservative swimwear." At times, the swatches of fabric are held together with fishing wire or adhesive.
If You Didn't Come For the History LessonClick thumbnail to view full-size
The swimsuit has had a rich history, from frumpy to barely there. Considering the 1940s era in which the bikini was introduced, it is surprising that it gained popularity as quickly as it did (revealing, sexy nature aside). Today, the challenge is to find a suit that is flattering, yet fashionable at the same time. Fortunately, you don't have to be a fashion model to wear the bikini style. Two-piece swimsuits can be worn by anyone in any shape, particularly if you are confident enough to carry it off. Check out Bikini Bods
Today, the bikini is the most purchased swimwear by young women. This is a somewhat amazing, considering the early predictions, as recently as the late 1950s that the suit would never catch on in the States, and would have to remain worn exclusively by the extroverted French women.
Next time you're considering a suit purchase (or wondering why your daughter is insisting on such a small number), reflect on the bikini's beginnings, from war rationing efforts, to the French designer's atomic bomb!
© 2008 Stephanie Hicks